“How is leadership possible when you have no idea what you’re doing?”

By Michaela Dwyer

This summer, several weeks before Project Change, I stood on one side of a wide room and made eye contact with a dancer standing on the opposite side. Twelve dance students—high-schoolers attending the Governor’s School of North Carolina—lined the unoccupied walls, waiting for something to happen. They were holistically tired: tired of forcing their bodies into unfamiliar dance phrases in a studio with all the mirrors covered (for dancers trained to measure their success by the height of their leg kick, obscured mirrors can feel like cruel and unusual punishment); tired from the type of summer-camp marathon socializing that comes naturally to teenagers.

Their only instructions were to “pay attention,” and to “begin” when they thought they had “figured out what was going on.” Gradually, my instructor and I moved toward one another. We took turns making sequences of three shapes: I would contribute, carving lines around his lines, and he would respond accordingly. To the dancers, it probably looked like a very abstract union of Simon Says and Twister. By the time they “began,” he and I were ten minutes in, intertwined inches apart, sweating profusely, and poking limbs through the open spaces created by our two bodies.

Many improvisation-based movement and dance classes incorporate “games” like this one, where verbal instructions are sparse and students are expected to [literally] jump in when they feel they have something productive to contribute to the overall structure, the overall theme—even if, as often happens, the theme isn’t obvious from the get-go.

Last week I participated in my first Project Change, the eight-day “immersive leadership experience in which participants live, learn, and work in Durham.” The task? “Competing with a team of peers to find ways to solve the city’s critical problems.” As Nathan hinted in his last post, details about the experience are intentionally few. And as any of this year’s 21 students or the generations of alumni could tell you, details remain few as the week progresses.

I occupied a unique position throughout those eight days: as one of the leaders, I had access to the schedules outlining each day’s frenzied sequence of activities and knowledge of the community partners we’d be working with in Durham. Like the students, though, I had never participated in Project Change. I felt a certain solidarity in this regard, an obligation to go through it with them—to revel in their eagerness as they navigated their teams throughout the city and interviewed Durham citizens about the Duke-Durham relationship; to tour and then work with three different organizations that serve, internally and externally, as models for community engagement in Durham; to account for and analyze my privilege as a Duke student and alumna that allows me to engage with Durham on a daily basis in specific ways that many of its residents do not and often cannot.

During the week, as the students’ (and my) exhaustion began to feel uncannily similar to that of the young dancers I worked with this summer, we kept returning to the idea of leadership. Project Change is, at its core, a program that examines and aims to embody engaged, ethical leadership. But I could hear a question reverberating amongst the cohort as they shuffled between blindfolded team-building activities and on-site work, always unaware of what was coming next: “How is leadership possible when you have no idea what you’re doing?”

It’s essentially the same question the young dancers asked, nonverbally, for the first ten minutes of our improvisation as they observed their two dance instructors work out a task, a theme, to which only we seemed to know the answer—or at least the “right” way of approaching it. In fact, we did not. Our objective was simply to relate to each other, whether inches away or across the room, via filling in empty spaces—the “negative space”—of our joint physical architecture. Our only intention was to make clear choices. This allows for a lot of creativity that can only unwind and take shape in the moment. This allows for new goals to form as old ones are discarded. And this requires whole-body thinking, whole-body immersion. To think and do simultaneously. And, crucially, to do so with a community that approaches the same task with different backgrounds, experiences, and understandings that inform and alter not only how to achieve the task but what the task is in the first place.

Though we never took on a movement exercise quite like the one I helped lead this summer, Project Change felt—at least to me—very much like a week of structured improvisation. It’s preorientation as disorientation, intentionally disruptive of the ways we plod through the day-to-day. And, for eight days, it doesn’t stop.

Like Kenan’s TK: Challenge events, which will continue this fall, Project Change discards the theoretical root of “walk[ing] a mile in [someone else’s] shoes” and replaces it with lived experience. Project Change requires its participants to be vulnerable and confident at the same time, to improvise through the uncomfortable until a new, shared, comfortable conclusion seems possible. If you couldn’t tell, I’m still reeling from it­—and that’s only because I can proudly say I was there. And part of the dance, too.